Presidential candidates spend hours upon hours aboard hulking SUVs and swanky buses motoring across the snowy prairies of the country’s midsection ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses — all to try to win just a handful of votes.
In 2012, some 121,500 Republicans caucused in the entire state. That’s only about 6,000 more people than the 114,700 Republicans who cast ballots in the presidential primary that year — in Miami-Dade County.
Rick Santorum won the 2012 caucuses with 29,839 votes. That’s about how many votes Mitt Romney got — in Miami-Dade absentee ballots alone.
But this is how the nation picks its presidents. Which is why Miamians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush spent the better part of the past week in places like Sioux City, asking Republicans for their support.
Some of them don’t even live in Iowa.
“I’m from Nebraska,” one woman attending Bush’s Friday afternoon town hall sheepishly admitted. A couple at Rubio’s Saturday morning town hall declined to give their name, because “We came from South Dakota.”
The Sioux City metro area, on the banks of the Missouri River and once part of Lewis and Clark’s exploration trail, touches all three states. The city proper, however, has a population of 82,500 — smaller than Miami Beach — and is Iowa’s fourth-largest city. Voters expect to see their candidates in person.
They know the rest of the country eyes their throwback caucuses with suspicion. Why should such a small state (population 3.1 million), with so little diversity (92 percent white, compared to 77 percent in the U.S.) and such low caucus turnout (20 percent among Republicans in 2012), get first dibs to winnow the candidate field?
“What state is perfect?” said Robert Stewart, a city co-chairman of the Woodbury County GOP. “As an Iowan, I take seriously my responsibility. This is the future of the country.”
As an Iowan, I take seriously my responsibility. This is the future of the country.
Robert Stewart of the Woodbury County GOP
And in Iowa, he added, “You have to get out and meet people. You can’t just run TV ads.” (Take that, Florida’s 10 TV markets.)
As incoming speaker of the Florida House, Rubio himself wrote in his 2006 book 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future that “a small, non-diverse group of citizens [the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire] have a disproportionate impact on the nomination of presidential candidates.”
He suggested letting a large, bellwether state — like Florida — vote immediately after the two states. Florida moved up its primary in 2008 and 2012, but was punished by the Republican and Democratic parties as a result. This year, the primary isn’t until March 15.
As a presidential candidate, Rubio lauds Iowans for their questions, which at a single event Saturday ranged from mental-health providers to Supreme Court appointments to whether to treat U.S. citizens as enemy combatants.
“I love this process. I really do,” he told a focus group in the state Friday, according to a clip aired on Fox News. “It’s made me a better candidate, and it’s going to make me a better president.”
I love this process. I really do.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio
Bush said much the same. “Iowans and Granite Staters are pretty discerning voters,” he told reporters, also referring to those from New Hampshire. (“That’s not to say voters in Miami aren’t!” he added.)
Both Rubio and Bush have campaigned on a message of inclusiveness that might resonate more outside of the first two voting states. Even in Sioux City, which is more diverse than other places in Iowa — Hispanics make up a portion of the city’s meat-packing industry — the crowds who came out for Bush and Rubio were almost entirely white.
Bush’s campaign has devoted some resources to reaching out to Iowa Hispanics, based on the political calculus that growing the universe of Latino caucus-goers could give a marginal boost to the former Florida governor.
Among his supporters is Juan Rodriguez, a Colombian American who owns a Mexican restaurant and other businesses in Des Moines, including a Spanish-language AM radio station and a magazine in which he said the Bush campaign has purchased political advertising.
“Really, Jeb is the conservative who has been closest to the Latino community,” Rodriguez, 43, said. “First of all, his wife is Mexican. He speaks Spanish.” (Of Rubio and Cruz, he added, “They’re more American. Immigration from Cuba is completely different than immigration from Mexico.”)
Rodriguez caucused for the first time in 2012, for Newt Gingrich. He moved to the U.S. in 2003 — 13 years after his sister became a U.S. citizen and first petitioned to bring him to the country. Recruiting fellow Hispanics to the GOP is difficult, he said: “Ask them why they vote Democratic, and they say, ‘Because the Democrats are going to help me with immigration.’ ”
His biggest struggle ahead of the caucuses is explaining how they work. “Most people don’t even understand what the two parties are,” he lamented. “No one knows.”
The impact of Hispanics in Iowa’s Republican caucuses has been so negligible that neither Rubio’s campaign nor any other one on the GOP side has claimed a stake with the community.
That doesn’t mean Rubio, the Florida senator and son of Cuban immigrants, hasn’t sought Latino support.
Enrique Peña, another Colombian American, said Rubio won him over after he met with Latino community leaders in Des Moines. Peña was later featured in a Rubio campaign commercial.
“One of the key things that I think is needed for the next time a president gets in the White House is that it’s somebody who’s able to bring everybody together, and I think he has the ability to do that,” said Peña, 54, a coffee broker from Winterset (perhaps best known for The Bridges of Madison County). “Some of the other candidates are so polarized and so divisive.”
After 34 years in Iowa — he moved to the state to go to college — Peña said he plans to caucus Monday for the first time, for Rubio.
“Before, the choices were so few that I didn’t feel like it, but now it’s like, wow,” he said. “Every person makes a difference.”
Miami Herald Political Wrtier Patricia Mazzei is in Iowa for the caucuses. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei